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After 25 years, Fork still defines Philadelphia culinary excellence, leadership and hospitality

Fork’s true magic is greater than any menu or chef.

Owner Ellen Yin posed for a portrait at Fork in Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. Fork is located at 306 Market Street.
Owner Ellen Yin posed for a portrait at Fork in Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. Fork is located at 306 Market Street.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

“Remember me?” said a server who sidled up to my table recently at Fork. Of course. How could I forget Anthony DeMelas?

Not only is he the artist who painted the mural of a birchwood forest that illuminates the walls of this touchstone of fine dining in Old City, DeMelas was the server credited with a misstep that has lived on in Fork lore after I memorialized it in a 2013 review. “I’m the one who threw out your bone!” he confessed with a smile to an error long forgiven.

The bone was an epic Wagyu rib I’d intended to pillage later for its luscious scraps of extra meat, only to find at home that someone had accidentally tossed it out before packing our leftovers. It made for a good laugh (with a redemption kicker) in my otherwise rave review of chef Eli Kulp’s debut, who happened to be back in the kitchen that night. The chef’s penchant for large-format dishes, like that massive short rib, helped make sharing platters a Philly trend.

We were all here again nearly a decade later for one of several special dinners featuring alumni this fall to celebrate Fork’s 25 years in business. This meal showcasing Kulp revisited one of the most remarkable phases in this pioneering restaurant’s stellar run to date. DeMelas, now a full-time artist, had returned just for the occasion along with several other former staffers, who mingled with the crowd of longtime patrons and other chefs who’d come to pay homage. And the amber-lit room radiated joy as co-owner Ellen Yin, present as always, warmly greeted them all while keeping close tabs on every detail.

I coveted the chance to once again taste the brilliant dishes inspired by local ingredients and culinary storytelling that made Kulp’s arrival to Fork from New York a decade ago so impactful for Philadelphia. Black and white pici were twined into two-tone pasta ropes beneath seafood ragù. The earthy “Roots” salad came with the faux-truffle of a sunchoke dusted in black trumpet powder. Kulp’s legendary whole duck feast was complete with sublime Venetian duck meatballs.

It was thrilling to see Kulp, still a partner in Fork, rolling along the kitchen pass in his electric wheelchair, orchestrating the team of cooks Some, like High Street Hospitality Group’s Director of Restaurant Support, Luke Eschbach, had returned to the line for this event. It was also a bittersweet reminder of the 2015 Amtrak derailment that left Kulp paralyzed and ended his career as an active chef. He’s one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever covered, so I couldn’t help but wonder where Fork might be today in Philly’s culinary conversation if not for that tragic event.

Ultimately, that’s not the most meaningful gauge of Fork’s true importance as a Philadelphia institution. It has always served reliably good food — some eras more innovative than others. An alumni dinner on Nov. 16 with chef Terence Feury, who left in 2012, will evoke another key phase in Fork’s upward trajectory.

A beacon of hospitality

What matters most is where Fork stands now as it heads into the future. And as I lingered at a subsequent, non-event meal over a majestic whole Pennsylvania rainbow trout with a platter of house charcuterie and great wines inside Fork’s cozily-heated outdoor dining structure, I was reassured.

Because Fork’s true magic is greater than any menu: it’s about the intrinsic power of hospitality, teamwork and the restaurant as a source of community. The one constant driving that mission from Day One has been the extraordinary Ellen Yin.

Restaurant goers, myself included, often focus disproportionately on chefs. But Yin is the primary visionary here, and she has been the heart and soul of Fork for a quarter century, along with partner Roberto Sella, while more than half a dozen head chefs came and went, not to mention a vast group of other accomplished alumni who went on to become food leaders themselves. Providing staff job growth, health insurance, 401k plans, and sourcing local ingredients are initiatives that have been at the core of Fork’s focus on sustainability since its founding, long before they became fashionable.

Yin’s leadership within a variety of industry and neighborhood advocacy groups has been a model for the kind of engagement that benefits both a restaurant and its broader world. It’s no surprise Fork has survived the pandemic without ever having closed, though it pivoted plenty, from cooking thousands of essential worker meals to boxed takeout holiday feasts, and now, embracing its role again as one of Philadelphia’s most reliably excellent places to dine.

It’s as complete an experience as ever, with a deep team of enthusiastic service professionals, from Rodney Murray to Sasha Kostyrko (both also artists, like DeMelas), Matt Mixon and Megin Mowry, a manager who views Yin as her mentor after several stints at Fork, including its first decade. The cocktails from Wyatt Soule are beautifully crafted at the central bar that remains one of the best places in Philly to eat solo.

I had some fascinating discussions about pairing red wine with fish with beverage manager and service director Kevin Denson, as we veered into matching Kulp’s branzino en croute with an unfiltered Aussie pinot meuniere from Poppelvej that tasted like red grapes, earth, and sunshine in one gulp. Then, as we considered the rainbow trout, he served me half glasses of a golden, minerally Cies Albariño and a Sylvain Pataille Marsannay red with soft tannins that couldn’t have been more different, but perfectly framed that fish from opposite sides of the flavor spectrum.

Fork has left its star chef phase behind by elevating George Madosky, 30, to a lead role after working his way up over five years at the restaurant from garde manger. This is not to imply Madosky and sous chef Elise Black, 36, bring any shortage of talent. But considering the general template of this menu has changed little over the past year, their roles are less focused on wholesale reinvention than refining flavors and interpreting dishes through the seasonal progressions local farmers provide. With a far greater array of local ingredients to choose from than 25 years ago, it has allowed Fork to remain unaffectedly fresh.

That could mean the briny wash of Sugar Shack oysters from Jersey waters near Barnegat Light as the daily raw bar feature splashed with tomatillo-ginger mignonette. Or shifting from summer squash to roasted fall kabochas for the creamy riff on baba ghanoush on the spread platter that showcases both Madosky’s Lebanese family roots and the Keystone miche sourced from Pennsylvania grains by High Street, Fork’s stellar sibling bakery that relocated a few blocks west during the pandemic. The charcuterie platter is ever-evolving, too, and featured a memorable smoked bison heart pastrami terrine, richly spreadable rillettes of corned lamb, and a silky duck liver mousse tart topped with strawberry gelée.

Delicata squash are tempura-fried into a clever autumn take on onion rings. And when the forager turns up with densely meaty chicken of the woods mushrooms? Simmer them like artichokes in tangy barigoule, of course, to accompany the daily fish.

I’d initially ordered the slow-cooked lamb neck with lamb longaniza at my second meal, a duo concept similar to the duck with duck sausage I’d enjoyed a year ago. But I’m so glad I reconsidered and opted instead for the whole trout for two. The delicate orange flesh of this magnificent fish, just hours removed from the ponds at Green-Walk Trout Hatchery in the Lehigh Valley, was expertly deboned and roasted to crispy-skinned perfection over coals before it was presented atop a buttery mound of pearl couscous and olives, wreathed by a crown of kale and mint.

Every aspect was so true to this restaurant’s essence, from the soft-spoken harmony of well-coaxed flavors to its large format spotlight on Pennsylvania’s finest ingredients, to the discussions with staff that eventually led me to reconsider my initial choice, I couldn’t help but savor every bite. It was the best fish I ate all year — and yet another valued Fork memory to add to a quarter century of many more.


306 Market St, 215-625-9425;

IF YOU GO : Lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, Sunday, 5 – 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Dinner entrees, $22-$36.

Wheelchair accessible.